Colleen is a senior year student at the prestigious private school St Joan’s in Danvers, Massachusetts. On a day in January, 2012, one of her classmates has what appears to be a seizure. It’s troubling but not a big deal until other girls fall ill. Soon girl after girl in the senior class succumb to the Mystery Illness, as the press will come to call it. Seizures, tics, yelps, even hair loss strike the girls. What is the cause of this illness? Is it environmental? Biological? Or psychological?
When prompted by her teacher to learn the real story behind the play The Crucible, Colleen discovers Ann Putnam, a girl like herself caught in the hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials. In many ways, those bizarre days resemble what is happening to Colleen and her friends in present day Massachusetts.
It’s kinda weird that I read two books about mysterious illnesses striking teenaged girls in small towns so close together. The tone of Fever is quite different from Conversion, however. Conversion, unbeknownst to me, is a young adult novel from Katherine Howe. I read and enjoyed Howe’s The Physic Book of Deliverance Dane, another Salem related story for adults. I didn’t know this one was YA until after a few chapters and I had the feeling that it was. I think it was the way the girls spoke to each other. Conversion, although it’s about girls afflicted with a serious unexplainable sickness, is lighter than Fever, and thankfully, there’s less fetishism of teenaged girls’ sexuality. Okay, I’m done comparing them, I have that out of my system.
Howe compares the real life case of a stress induced mass illness to the hysteria of the witch trials centuries ago. In both cases the events centred on adolescent girls. Howe creates a fictional school where the competition for top marks and university placement is high. I have to say I had no idea how crazy the US university admission process was. I don’t think anything compares to it here in Canada. It’s stressful and a lot of pressure is on these young women to get into their dream school. And, there’s some other stuff going on there too.
The “Interludes” with Ann Putnam in the 1700s were interesting. I couldn’t figure her out. She could have been a complex character but didn’t have a lot of manoeuvrability within the story as she was a real person giving a real confession. Her part in the hysteria mirrors what is happening to the girls in Danvers. Ann is swept up in the madness, even though she knows it isn’t real, she begins to believe it. Is this what is happening in 2012 or is it something else? Howe leaves some room for interpretation.
As for the modern day characters, I thought Colleen was on the Mary Sue side. The most rebellious thing she does is order beers at a bar. Her family are all well adjusted (though the youngest is virtually ignored, a running joke). They’re loving and supportive. Colleen’s friends are somewhat one dimensional, even Emma. Very rich, very privileged. Not very interesting.
I didn’t love Conversion. I wanted to like it more because of the subject of stress and teenaged girls, but the characters seemed flat to me.
About the Audio: Conversion is narrated by Khristine Hvam (Pokemon). She has a very young voice. That should have tipped me off that this was YA. She had a slightly English accent for the colonists.
Thanks to Penguin Audio for the review copy and a chance to give this one an honest review.